Wolves, Oil, Bureaucrats and Judges

Recently we heard how courts in Louisiana reversed the Obama administration’s moratorium on deep water oil drilling. Some suggest that the judge’s decision was not completely unbiased due to his personal investments in oil company stock. And investigation of the federal judges in this region shows that the majority of them have investments in oil companies.

This calls into question whether any judge in the region can render a fair judgment regarding whether public values that may be destroyed by risky oil development will be given fair consideration when judges deciding these cases have a financial incentive to promote oil development.

Just as the financial interests of the judges in the Gulf Coast region may distort and bias their ability to make fair judicial decisions regarding issues surrounding the oil industry, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency has a similar financial conflict of interest when it comes to management of predators. A conflict that the department does not publicly disclose.

However, all state wildlife agencies depend on license fees to fund their bureaucracy. If there is a decline in huntable game, or even the perception of less game that reduces the sale of licenses, this will have a direct negative financial effect on the agency.

In addition, since predators sometime attack livestock, there is also a strong incentive to kill predators to appease the ranching community—a community that controls a lot of the huntable terrain in Montana, and a group that the MDFWP does not want to antagonize, least they make less land available to hunters.

Though MDFWP is one of the most progressive agencies in the West, it still can’t buck a system that rewards killing predators. So it’s not surprising that MDFWP Commission approved expansion of Montana’s wolf killing quota from 75 to 186 animals. The department has a strong financial incentive to reduce the wolf population in Montana because wolves are perceived as a threat to hunting and the ranching industry.

But is it ethical to allow an agency and/or a business whose direct financial well-being is at stake to make public policy? In California voters were persuaded that Fish and Game agencies could not scientifically manage cougars, and that hunting created more problems than it eliminated. Voters took authority for hunting away from the agency by banning cougar hunting.

Since the ban on hunting in 1991, cougar populations have grown significantly. But surprising to some, California now has far fewer cougar incidents than other western states that have fewer cougars, fewer people, but permit cougar hunting. The only control that California exerts on cougar populations is the strategic removal of individual cougar that are deemed a safety threat to humans.

The reason for these unexpected results has to do with the social ecology of large predators. Killing of large predators like cougars (wolves) can skew populations towards younger animals. Younger animals wander more widely where they are more likely to encounter humans, and they are less experienced hunters. As a consequence they are far more likely to attack livestock, and in the case of cougars, even attack people rarely.

Hunting wolves has many of the same consequences. Wolf populations with a high percentage of younger adults that are less experienced hunters are more likely to attack livestock. Hunting of wolves can also contribute to smaller packs that have fewer adults to help raise pups—such packs are also more likely to attack easy prey like livestock.

Smaller packs often kill as many elk and deer as larger packs because they are unable to consume an entire elk in one feeding, leaving the carcass behind for scavengers to consume, thus forcing them to locate and kill another elk or deer.

Managing predators to reduce their impacts upon ungulates like elk and deer also guarantees that predators do not have the full ecological benefits that result from top-down predation. Everything from reducing herbivory effects on vegetation to changing the age structure of elk and other prey to increases in carrion for scavengers are among the many benefits associated with predators.

Though I can understand how difficult it would be for the commission to do anything else other than authorize more predator killing given the hostility that many hunters have to predators, like the judges deciding the fate of the Gulf of Mexico’s natural communities that may be destroyed by oil spills, it behooves us to question whether anyone with a direct financial interest in the outcome of a decision should be permitted to determine public policy.

Indeed, the best management of predators is exactly what California has done with cougars—eliminate all hunting of predators, except for those which pose a direct threat to human life and/or livestock. With regards to livestock we should require changes in animal husbandry practices to reduce conflicts such as immediate removal of carrion, use of guard animals, among other practices. Then and only then the only animals that should be killed are those that are habituated livestock killers.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, and former Montana hunting guide.






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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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